A Year in Shorts Day 307: "Curfew"
Content Warning: Self-harm, suicide and domestic abuse.
There are many reasons to make a short film, but the one I find particularly intriguing is when they are used as proofs of concept for a potential feature film. The Oscars have some history with this, going both ways. The Oscar-nominated short Cashback got turned into a non-Oscar-nominated feature two years after its release. Conversely, when Damien Chazelle couldn’t find funding for Whiplash, he produced fifteen pages of the screenplay as a short to drum up investors. (This is the (flimsy) justification for why Whiplash received a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.) Today’s short, Shawn Christensen’s Curfew, belongs in the former camp; after winning the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short, it was turned into the feature Before I Disappear, to much less acclaim. So what about Curfew made it so Oscar worthy, and why did that not translate to feature length success? The answer to both these questions lies in the movies.
Curfew is a 2012 short written, directed by and starring Shawn Christensen who, in addition to his film career, is also the frontman of the band Stellastarr. So for all you Stellastarr fans out there, this one goes out to you. Christensen is also, apparently, an award-winning painter, in case you wanted to feel bad about how little you've accomplished today. But I digress. Christensen plays Richie, a suicidal young man whose attempt on his life is interrupted by a phone call from his sister Maggie (Kim Allen in the short, Emmy Rossum in the feature), who needs him to babysit her daughter Sophia for the night (Fatima Ptacek in both). The two start off at odds, especially when Richie takes Sophia to an abandoned building, but the two start to warm up to one another as the two of them wind up going to a bowling alley. Bowling alleys- they bring people together. Now on paper, that might sound to you like twee indie bullshit. But if there's one thing that's become our motto here at The Great Oscar Baiter, it's this- Execution is Everything. (Well, either that or Fuck Tweety Bird.) And while your mileage certainly may vary, I think Curfew is incredibly well-executed.
There are a great many reasons for this. Firstly (and, to my mind, most importantly), there's Christensen's writing, which manages to be equal parts clever and sweet, with just enough of a cynical edge to temper any threat of excessive sentimentality. As a story about two people learning to slowly open up to one another, it's important for the dialogue to ride that line. You don't want them getting to close too quick, but you can't have a whole film of them sniping at each other. Luckily, Christensen's sweet and witty script mostly strikes that balance. The dialogue is frequently sharp and clever, with a lot of the exchanges between Richie and Sofia containing a lot of that fast talking, mildly repetitive style which I find so delightful. I suppose you could argue it gets a little cheesy at the end with Richie's speech to his sister, but hey, I like a little cheese in my drama. And if there was ever a time to make a heartfelt speech, it would be to comfort your abused sister, wouldn't it? But for the most part, Curfew remains a pleasantly low key and clever character piece.
Of course it certainly helps that Christensen's direction is just as good as his dialogue. Avoiding the overreliance on closeups and shot-reverse-shot that seems to dominate so many films made these days, Christensen (along with his cinematographer Daniel Katz) instead make great use of medium shots, overheads and camera movements to keep things interesting. A lot of the film's dialogue scenes are shot in such a way that the participants are on screen at the same time, which is one of those basic things that a lot of filmmakers today seem to mostly eschew. And Christensen makes great use of negative space in a way that stands out without being annoying. It's also worth pointing out that the film makes a great use of color; despite the dim lighting and often grim palette, the color in this film just pops. It may not be a super distinct style, but at least it's constantly fun to look at, and it helps sell some of the film's more fanciful scenes.
But what really makes Curfew work is the acting. In addition to his myriad talents, Christensen proves himself to be a capable movie star, blessed with great comic timing and a pleasantly snarky demeanor. Kim Allen makes the most of her limited screen time, even if the bulk of her big dramatic scene is silently listening to a monologue. (Hey, listening is an underrated part of acting!) But the real star of this short is, of course, Fatima Ptacek, who manages to be one of those precocious kid types without being incredibly annoying, which as I'm sure you're aware is no mean feat. Sofia is obviously the heart of this film, and casting a bad actor in this role really would have sunk it. But by that same token, finding the right actor really elevates the entire thing to levels of greatness. Filled with charm and a great deal of warmth, Ptacek gives quite possibly the best performance we've seen from a young actor in our Year in Shorts. I have no idea what the casting process for Curfew was like, but Christensen must have known he hit the jackpot when he found her.
Curfew was a massive success upon release, sweeping awards across the festival circuit before eventually winning the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short. It's really no surprise that Christensen rode that wave of hype to spin the film off into a feature. And while the odds of him replicating his Oscar success with Before I Disappear (the types of films that win in the Short categories are typically very different from the films which win major awards), one could reasonably expect it to at least become some sort of indie darling. And yet, upon release, Before I Disappear received mixed reviews, at best. So what changed? Well, not the director, writer or two of its stars. So as an added bonus, let's look at at Before I Disappear and see what the deal is.
While Before I Disappear has a lot of the same charms as Curfew, I think it suffers from trying to do too much. If you want to better admire the simplicity of the original short, just watch how freaking complicated Before I Disappear manages to make itself. What was originally a story about a man getting roped into looking after his niece now also has to contend with Richie's paranoia, pushy debt collectors, dead bodies found in bathrooms and a mysterious conspiracy. The film also goes into a lot more detail regarding Richie and Maggie's backstories, whereas I feel like the ambiguity in the original was fairly refreshing.
Another interesting thing to note in Before I Disappear is the difference in the performances between this and the original short. I want to say from the beginning that none of the performances in this film are bad; just different. Shawn Christensen gives himself a greater opportunity to show off his range, to mixed results. There are some effective moments here and there, but I think a lot of his bigger scenes play a bit awkwardly. He swings for the fences in a way that's admirable, if not always successful. Still, I think he sells the dramatic moments well enough, especially his speech towards the end. (The same can not be said for Emmy Rossum, who really overplays her crying in that scene; if you don't have a line, don't compensate by turning the emoting up to eleven!) And while Fatima Ptacek is as good as ever, it goes to show what a difference two years can make for a child actor's performance. Lines that originally came across as charmingly precocious play more as just general dickishness, with very little change. This is most noticeable in the scenes which are directly recreated from the original short. They just don't play the same way, although I'm not sure how you could change that, short of recasting.
In spite of all this, I still enjoyed parts of Before I Disappear, even if it loses a lot of the simple charm from the original. Christensen's visual style remains as good as ever, and even manages to top himself in some areas, taking clear advantage of a bigger budget and more experience, most notably in the more elaborate dance sequence. Even though a lot of the new characters and storylines are unnecessary, they're not poorly done or anything. I mean, how can I complain about a film adding Ron Perlman to the mix? I simply can't. If I had the opportunity to work with Ron Perlman I would take it, and I don't blame Shawn Christensen for doing the same.
Unfortunately, the weight of all the film's changes and additions ultimately become too much for it to bear. At a certain point the film stops being about Sofia and Richie's relationship, and becomes more about Richie dealing with all the various subplots. It's an unfortunate mistake the film never really recovers from, and ultimately I can't say that it came together in a satisfying way. One can't help but wonder what the point of all the extraneous scenes and characters was in the first place. If you're going to expand the short, why not just expand the short? Why not just develop the scenes between Richie and Sofia further, explore what makes them tick, flesh out their growing bond? That was the heart of the short and it's strange that the movie loses sight of that. I wonder if, like Whiplash, Curfew was cobbled together from scenes from a complete screenplay, with Christensen (rightly) figuring that the Richie and Sofia scenes were the strongest part of the movie. Even if that were the case, I think a couple of rewrites might have been in order.
Altogether, it's not hard to see why the film couldn't quite capture the same level of success as the original short. Despite some strong performances and visual flair, Before I Disappear just lacks the charm of its source material. And while it's true that films like this don't receive much in the way of Oscar love, it's not like it was an impossible task either. After all, 2014 was also the year Whiplash came out, and that's hardly a typical Oscar movie. Still, I suppose that's hardly the point. A lot of people who make Oscar-winning shorts never get to go on to make a feature, so the film's existence is a victory in it of itself. And aside from that, we always have the wonderfully charming original, and no remake can ever take that away from us.
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